Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" condenses centuries of tangled racial strife into a brief lyric. The song begins in rural, impoverished, perhaps southern, America: "I was born by the river, in a little tent." Then, with a glance at the old man river who just keeps rolling, it alludes to African-Americans as on-the-lam outsiders: "Just like the river, I've been running ever since." The third stanza, now shifted to an urban location, refers specifically to the insult of segregation (shortly before writing the song, Cooke had been barred from a Shreveport hotel): "I go to the movies and I go downtown;/ Somebody keep telling me, don't hang around." The second stanza is surprisingly confessional for a man who had started his career in gospel and had sung lead for the Soul Stirrers; it's about loss of faith. "I don't know what's up there, beyond the sky." Nevertheless, despite all the reasons for losing heart, including the lack of support from brothers of different political factions, Sam retains an uncompromised optimism: he will "carry on, yes I will." The song is a miniature allegory of a triumph over separation and persecution. It celebrates endurance, perseverance, fortitude in the face of long odds. No wonder that Barack Obama adapted Cooke's affirmative "Yes I will" into "Yes we can."
Sam Cooke himself didn't get to the promised land; he was shot, under "mysterious circumstances" in December of 1964. "A Change is Gonna Come" was released posthumously.